Hashima, located off the coast of Japan, is often called Gunkanjima or 軍艦島, literally meaning Battleship Island. The man-made sea walls give the island the appearance of the Tosa, the Japanese warship. Some have likened it to Godzilla emerging from the sea. The island was once a symbol of the rapid industrialization of Japan but it has been abandoned since 1974.
Hashima is located 15 kilometres (9 miles) from Nagasaki and was uninhabited until the late 19th century. Coal was discovered on the island in 1810 but it was not until 1887 that mining operations began. Mitsubishi Goshi Kaisha bought the island in 1890 and began extracting coal from the seabed. For this purpose, they constructed four mine shafts, each a kilometre deep. They were responsible for the construction of the seawalls which tripled the size of the island and allowed them to develop it to house the miners and their families.
Japan’s first reinforced concrete building was built on Hashima in 1916. The 7 storey building was a residential block to house miners. Concrete was chosen as the best material to use because of the harsh conditions and to protect against typhoon destruction. Further concrete buildings followed including a school, kindergarten, hospital, town hall, community centre, cinema, communal bath, swimming pool, rooftop gardens, shops and countless residential buildings.
As Japan’s empire grew, they began forcing Korean and Chinese prisoners to work on the building projects on Hashima. They were forced to work under harsh conditions and brutal treatment at the Mitsubishi facility and it is estimated that 1,300 of those conscripted labourers died on the island due to underground accidents, exhaustion, and malnutrition.
Coal mining was hugely important for the Japanese war effort and nearly 5,000 workers lived on the island during World War II. The war eventually came to an end following the bombing of Nagasaki at 11:02 am on August 9 1945. Despite its proximity to the city, Hashima suffered no damage as much of the bomb’s effects were confined by hillsides to the narrow Urakami Valley with the radius of total destruction being 1 mile (1.6 km).
As Japan rapidly industrialised after the war, Hashima’s output continued to grow and its population peaked at 5,259 in 1959. The population density of 83,500 people/km2 or 216,264 people per square mile, made it the most densely populated place on earth at the time.
In the 1960s, petroleum replaced coal as the dominant fuel in Japan and around the world. As a result, many of the coal mines in Japan began closing and production on Hashima was wound down. It was finally closed in January 1974 and by April 20 that year, the final inhabitants left. It has been abandoned ever since.
Mitsubishi retained ownership of the island until 2002 when they transferred it to Takashima Town. In 2005, Nagasaki absorbed Takashima and since then, they have administered the island. The city cautiously reopened Hashima to tourism in 2009 however most of the buildings remained off limits due to being unsafe and in danger of collapse.
The coal mine on the island was formally approved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2015, as part of Japan’s Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining. This was despite protests from South Korea, North Korea and China who claimed that the use of forced labour at the mine contradicted the spirit of promoting peace as upheld by UNESCO. Japan agreed to formally recognise the issue as part of the history of the island and commemorate those who died. South Korea agreed to withdraw their objections in 2015 and the site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Hashima has featured increasingly in popular culture since the start of the 21st century. It has featured in TV shows such as Life After People, What on Earth and Dark Tourist. The island featured in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall. The 2017 South Korean World War II film The Battleship Island fictitiously depicts an attempt by Korean forced labourers to escape the labour camp on the island.
Sightseeing tours to island are still provided by a number of companies from Nagasaki.